In the Comfort Zone: Finding Happiness on your Plate
by Lenora Dannelke
Comfort foods – by definition, simple, warm and hearty – hug the palate with feel-good flavors from childhood. “One bite can take you back to another part of your life,” says Tyler Baxter, executive chef at The Bayou. “It’s food you want to eat when the weather is bad; food that just makes you feel better.”
A craving for homey dishes is, in fact, a physiological response to cortisol, a hormone released by stress. Therefore, that gooey grilled cheese sandwich can actually serve as an effective antidote to hectic living. Of course, instead of mom’s white bread and processed cheese-food version, grown-up taste buds typically seek more sophisticated flavors – say, a toasty artisan bread sandwich stuffed with creamy chèvre and a dab of fig jam.
Chefs across the Lehigh Valley are responding to this appetite for comfort foods with upscale twists on familiar dishes. Home cooks, too, can put fresh spins on family favorites. “Sometimes all it takes is changing one ingredient to a luxury item – like using quail over chicken,” says Baxter, noting that tampering too much with a classic dish can obscure “the nostalgia effect.”
However, upscale comfort can be delivered through time and effort, not just pricier ingredients. “Oxtails used to be considered scraps by butchers,” Baxter continues, explaining that three days of brining and marinating go into the preparation of the braised oxtails on his Southern-inspired menu. “It’s a labor of love, and something you might not want to do at home.”
Other less-prized cuts that butchers once gave to customers as dog treats, from pigs’ feet – aka trotters – to marrow bones, now grace the menus of fine-dining American restaurants. (European cultures have long esteemed variety meats and organs, such as the French delicacy foie gras and haggis, the definitive dish of Scotland.)
For Executive Chef Drew Stark, the comforting foods featured at The Hamilton Kitchen & Bar recall the kind of home-style recipes his mother gleaned from women’s magazines when she was learning to cook. However, he notes that attention to detail elevates everyday dishes to a higher level. “Take the time to add flavors that people aren’t expecting,” he says.
At the restaurant, meatloaf is prepared with a blend of lamb, beef and veal, and corn is roasted to impart an extra layer of flavor in succotash cooked with stock made with corncobs and finished with cream. Fried chicken, instead of arriving prebreaded and frozen, is brined and marinated in buttermilk before being crisply cooked to order. Cooking à la minute and using seasonal produce, Stark says, retains “the freshness that those raw products have. You’ll get the most flavor by using the right product at the right time.” For example, sweet potatoes are a perfect complement to a winter menu – stirred into a spicy soup, mixed into buttery biscuits, or cut into thick fries cooked in duck fat. A yen for peaches, though, is best put on hold until summer.
Stark advises home cooks to “take a step back” and look for simple ways to enhance basic flavors, such as chopping fresh herbs and shallots or roasting tomatoes to intensify the flavor of a sauce. Subtle and thoughtful differences can transform a dish from ordinary to exceptional.
Shawn Doyle, chef/owner of the Savory Grille, rates Pennsylvania Dutch and Polish cuisine high on the comfort scale, from chicken potpie to kielbasa and kluski (sausage and dumplings). However, even the most humble and earthy dishes come out of his kitchen looking elegant and refined, such as petite pierogies – made with aged white cheddar – presented with sautéed pork cheeks and artfully arranged micro greens. “Fried pork and pierogies is pretty basic,” he says with a laugh. “It’s all about appearance and texture. Adding a different component gives a dish a new twist.” For example, pickled vegetables and variations on aioli add intriguing splashes of color and flavor to a plate.
Doyle also suggests bringing an element of playful surprise to a comforting meal. “Popcorn is great,” he says. “Use it instead of croutons to garnish soup, or serve it instead of bread.” Or follow a meal with freshly popped or homemade caramel corn paired with fruit and cheese. Even exotic varieties of gourmet red, blue and purple popping kernels carry a modest price tag – but will impress guests with your creativity.
Meatloaf is a standby comfort dish that Steve Kershner, chef/owner of Twisted Olive, makes more “hip and more appealing than mom’s version” by adding fresh herbs and ancho chile powder. “Then we take it a step further with a glaze made of ketchup and chipotles in adobo,” he says. “It’s still meatloaf, but dressed up.” The chef also puts a highly personal spin on oh-so-comforting ravioli, crafting a filling from butternut squashes raised in his home garden.
Noting that barbecue is currently a hot comfort-food commodity, Kershner reports that he recently added some Asian flair to his weekly “Wednesday Night BBQ” menu. “It happened by accident,” he says. “I wondered what it would taste like to mix smoked pulled pork with udon noodles, Chinese vegetables, and an Asian brown sauce. Oh, my gosh, it works! The smokiness really comes out.” This fusion-style dish underscores the universal language of comfort food – which can not only take you back to familiar places but lead the way to enticing new frontiers of flavor.
A quintessential comfort food, mashed potatoes may also be the easiest dish to take in tasty new directions. Consider that bowl of fluffy spuds a clean white canvas to paint with flavor. For example, try stirring in: hand-grated Parmesan and truffle oil; roasted garlic and minced fresh rosemary; prepared horseradish and smoked bacon pieces; wilted spinach and olive oil; sun-dried tomatoes and chives; coconut milk and saffron; or mashed avocado and wasabi. Buttermilk, cream cheese or Greek yogurt will also add a creamy new dimension to mashed potatoes. For a colorful variation, cook a blend of white or Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet potatoes and butternut squash, then mash them with heavy cream, sliced scallions and dried cranberries.
COURTESY OF STEVE KERSHNER | CHEF/OWNER
TWISTED OLIVE | BETHLEHEM
• 1/4 lb. double-smoked bacon, coarsely chopped
• 2 lbs. ground beef, veal and pork mixture
• 1 cup chopped onions
• 1 cup heavy cream
• 1 cup plain breadcrumbs
• 3 eggs, beaten
• 1/2 cup chopped celery
• 2 T chopped cilantro
• 1 T kosher salt
• 2 tsp. minced parsley
• 2 tsp. minced fresh rosemary
• 2 T minced fresh thyme
• 1 1/2 tsp. ancho chile powder
• 1 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
• 1 tsp. ground black pepper
• 2 T pureed chipotles in adobo sauce
• 1 cup ketchup
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Pulse bacon in a food processor until coarsely ground. Mix bacon with the ground meat blend and the remaining ingredients. Place meatloaf in a 13″ x 9″ x 2″ baking pan coated with nonstick spray. Smooth the meatloaf by wetting your hands with cold water and rubbing the surface until even. Place in oven and bake for 35 minutes.
Make the glaze by mixing the chipotles with the ketchup. Spread one-half cup on top of meatloaf. Return the pan to the oven for 10 more minutes. Test for 165°F with instant-read thermometer. Serve the meatloaf with remaining sauce alongside.
Suggested side dishes: butternut squash puree and roasted cauliflower.
DEVILED EGG TRIO
COURTESY OF DREW STARK | EXECUTIVE CHEF
HAMILTON KITCHEN & BAR | ALLENTOWN
• 12 large hard-cooked eggs, peeled and sliced widthwise, yolks removed and whites reserved
Egg filling base:
• 12 hard-cooked egg yolks, passed through a food mill
• 6 oz. mayonnaise
• 2 oz. Dijon mustard
• 3/4 tsp. salt
• 1/4 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
Mix all ingredients together and divide evenly among 3 separate mixing bowls.
Crispy bacon filling:
• 2 slices bacon
Cook bacon in frying pan till crispy. Remove from frying pan, cool and chop into small pieces. Add any leftover fat from the frying pan to one of the mixing bowls, as well as the chopped bacon, and and mix together.
Roasted shallot filling:
• 2 shallots, cut in quarters
• 2 sprigs thyme
• 1 oz. canola oil
• Salt and pepper to taste
Lay out a 12″ x 12″ piece of aluminum foil. Place the shallots, thyme, oil, salt and pepper in center and fold the corners over top to create a little pouch. Bake in a 325°F oven for about 45 minutes, until the shallots are cooked through and slightly caramelized. If they are cooked but not caramelized, open up the packet and cook for another 15 minutes. Remove from oven, cool and chop finely. Add this mixture to the second bowl and combine.
Piquillo pepper filling:
• 1/4 can piquillo peppers (about 3 oz.)
• 1 tsp. smoked paprika
• Juice of 1/2 lemon
• Salt and pepper to taste
Drain liquid from the can and chop the piquillos very small. Add the chopped peppers to the third mixing bowl and combine well. Add smoked paprika and a squeeze of lemon. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
To finish: Fill the cavities of 8 egg whites with each of the three fillings. To serve as an appetizer, place one of each variety on a plate and garnish as desired.
(Makes 24 portions)